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Corn ethanol curse strikes again? Algae fuels have large footprint

911816_algaeCould algae-based biofuels suffer the same fate as the now much-discredited corn-based ethanol? They might, if we don’t find ways to reduce algal fuel’s environmental impact, according to a new study.

After the race to turn corn into fuel helped spark a global spike in food prices, clean-energy proponents turned their sights to so-called “second-generation” biofuel stocks. These include non-food crops like switchgrass and algae, as well crop waste and lumber waste. Algae have been widely considered to have especially great potential, since they can be grown in marginal areas that don’t compete with prime food-growing farmlands.

But there’s a problem — or, rather, several problems — with that idea, according to a team of researchers from the University of Virginia. Their new study finds that growing algae for fuel is more energy- and water-intensive than other biofuel crops, including switchgrass, canola and corn. Oh, and it also produces more greenhouse gas emissions than those other sources.

“Given what we know about algae production pilot projects over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve found that algae’s environmental footprint is larger than other terrestrial crops,” said Andres Clarens, the study’s lead author.  “Before we make major investments in algae production, we should really know the environmental impact of this technology.”

One solution could be to grow algae in ponds behind wastewater treatment facilities. That way, producers could use the wastewater as a source for phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients that algae needs. That strategy would also prevent those nutrients from, as they now are, being discharged into local waterways.

Another plus is that feeding algae with phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater reduces the biofuel’s fossil fuel footprint, since those nutrient are currently produced using petroleum.

It’s a situation the Virginia researchers have seen before.

“People were investing in ethanol refineries, but then we realised that it takes a lot of petroleum to grow corn and convert it to ethanol,” Clarens said. “By the time you get done, you’ve used almost as much petroleum to make ethanol that you would have if you just put the oil straight into your car.”

Today’s limitations, though, doesn’t mean algae doesn’t have potential. In addition to not competing with food crops, algae tend to yield more energy than other biofuel crops like corn or switchgrass. Their high fat content also promises to make refining more efficient than with other fuel stocks.

Still, significant hurdles still stand in the way of algae becoming a cheap and easy source of fuel. And those hurdles need to be removed soon before we put too many eggs in algae’s basket.

Both governments and energy companies are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars for algae research. Last year, for example, ExxonMobil said it was investing $600 million into the quest for algal biofuels. And just last week, the US Department of Energy announced it was directing $78 million in economic stimulus funds into algae fuel research.

“If we do decide to move forward with algae as a fuel source, it’s important we understand the ways we can produce it with the least impact, and that’s where combining production with wastewater treatment operations comes in,” Clarens said.


    Posted September 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

    ”Given the right conditions, algae can double its volume overnight. Microalgae are the earth’s most productive plants –– 10 to 15 times more prolific in biomass than the fastest growing land plant exploited for biofuel production. While soy produces some 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm, 650 gallons, algae can produce up to 15,000 gallons per acre per year. In addition, up to 50 percent (or more) of algae biomass (dry weight) is comprised of oil, whereas oil-palm trees—currently the most efficient large-scale source of feedstock oil to make biofuels—yield approximately 20 percent of their weight in oil,” says Zeljko Serdar, President of CCRES

  • Christopher Kindig
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:18 am


    Algae can be made into a variety of biofuels, including biodiesel, ethanol, algae, and biogas. To add to your analysis, here are some pros and cons to algae as fuel:

    Algae grows in all directions
    Single celled with no superstructure required for algae (roots, trunks, leaves)
    Growth speed: 140 days for land crops; algae grows year round & mature in just 1 or 2 days
    Algae weathers extreme conditions well, so resistant to drought, wind, rain, and insects
    Grow 30-100 x more oil per acre than corn or soybeans
    No sulfur, non toxic, biodegradable
    Can mix with existing fuels in existing vehicles
    Can also produce fuel, bioplastics, medicine, nutrition, animal feed, fertilizer, and more
    Can absorb CO2 and other pollutants from coal power plants, cement manufacturing, fossil fuel extraction and refining, fermentation based industries, ethanol production, etc


    Scale – difficulty replicating lab results into larger volume of production

    Growing – using open ponds are easily contaminated, PBR’s (photobioreactors) can be expensive (there are much more affordable options, read on!)

    Processing – challenges to harvesting and extracting oil

    Carbon Capture – is it really feasible? Can the algae keep up with the output of the factory, and what about during the night when algae is not active? Can the waste be reliably transferred into the algae; are the right growing conditions and enough land there alongside the plant to cultivate the algae? (“to fully use the emissions from a 50 MWe natural gas fired power plant land would require 2200 acres of algae.”) Additional nutrients are still required, such as N, P, or K, which must be added in precise amounts and typically come from chemicals like ammonia or nitrate and phosphorous. Taking into consideration all of the processing, is there really a net reduction or capture of CO2? Also, capturing the emissions it is not true sequestration, as the carbon used will be burned again as fuel.

    Differing results from various strains, environmental conditions, and growing systems

    If chemicals are used to extract oil or process fuel, some materials in exhaust can be toxic

    Environmental Concerns – if major cultivation takes place, especially of GM (genetically modified) algae – what if it gets into the environment and seriously disrupts the ecosystem?

    I still think there is enough evidence to suggest that this is the right direction for us to take, however there are still challenges. The Algae Revolution is upon us; I think we will be seeing amazing breakthroughs every day.

    To learn how to make algae biofuels, check out:
    Algae to Biodiesel:
    Algae to Ethanol:

    And for a look at the broad range of goods possible from algae and considerations for how to scale them up into entrepreneurial pursuits, check out Algae Business:

    Let me know if there are any questions about algae, or equipment to cultivate and use biofuels! provides a wide range of green technology solutions to make it easy to Go Green!


  • Wayne
    Posted July 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    This article is misleading. They talk about how algae has a higher carbon footprint that corn but it only need to compete with oil! If it is cheaper and better than fossil fuel and takes no crops away from us the it should be highly considered. It also yields more energy than corn, sugar, or any other crop used to make ethanol.

  • yonnie
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Once again Big Oil has payed one of their many think tanks groups to come up with a “study” discrediting their competition.

  • Daniel
    Posted June 18, 2010 at 8:02 am


    nothing we are discussion right now/today is THE solution. But it seems to me that the powers that “be” try everything to stay in control of distribution. Anything that can be done Off-grid (at home) is discouraged…
    It would be interesting to see who funded the study…anyone?


  • Andrew
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

    Ever heard of the new, closed loop system? Running water with algae in it through soft, clear plastic tubing in a glass room, so that the algae is able to be farmed within two days of its setup.

  • michael cole
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Hmmmm….Ethanot from corn became big and researchers came up with a reason to discredit it, but offered no numbers in those articles. Algae based fuels are becoming a real possibility and once again articles with no numbers or data to back it up are attacking algae. Show me numbers. If a company starts building houses with solar panels will we see articles talking about how the sun is responsible for global warming? Do your journalistic duty. Tell me some numbers. Who paid for the Virginia research study. Can I use the dat from the study and reproduce the results independently? Did the authors verify this information? What happened to the two source idea for artivles?

  • Martin Tampier
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Quite true, but I would even go further: since plants only use 4% of solar energy, whereas some PV panels now use 16% or more, they have a clear disadvantage. We examined algae biofuels in detail last year (see and think that the current approaches will not work. Pumping tonnes of water to grow a few algae is energetically and financially unsustainable. We would need to think of entirely different concepts to grow algae if we are to succeed.

  • Lars Dunn
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 5:53 am

    There is no ethanol curse, except as a possible reason why the media continues to publish such non-information and demostrate their lack of competence by repeating political claims, not scientific evidence.

    Obviously Clarens, from his comments, is not much of an expert on biofuels. Ethanol was not responsible for food price increases, ethanol production results in almost twice as much energy produced as consummed in its production, and algae projects are continuing to increase because of their carbon dioxide consumming and protein production potential. This so-called authority should not have been quoted in this article, unless the author wanted to showcase his lack of research and knowledge on the subject.

  • Bewildered_response
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 10:10 pm

    The primary cost of algae growth is the CO2 presently being bottled in.
    The utilisation of CO2 from varied sources and delivered to algae growers is feasible and being tried and tested.
    Origo Industries proved capturing CO2 from a vehicle and feeding it to algae for re-use over 12 months ago, now the company is shrouded in silence.

  • scott
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    To ezshooter:
    It’s easy to say this article is a hack job, but you offer no particulars. The study seems to make sense. The deal is that we won’t get something for nothing. I think the closest we can get to that is solar, because anything we use now is just distilled solar energy. Alas, there are issues with solar energy, too.

  • ezshooter
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    And just how much energy is wasted transporting a barrel of oil from a foreign country, to a refiner, to a gas station? How can America continue spending $1 trillion per war to defend its oil fields in other countries? Algae has potential, this article is a hack job.

  • Jetty
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Not surprising that there has been a study that has indicated any form of alternative fuel that may challenge big oil is going to be bad. Ethanol was not the reason food prices increased. Rampant speculation and high oil prices were the main cause. Corn ethanol is not the ultimate answer but it can play a major role and open the door to other alternatives, like algae. Big Oil will keep trying to slam that door shut.

    Posted January 22, 2010 at 12:39 am

    The balance of the Yin and Yang.Sugar and a work and the structure of the photosynthesis.Initiation and termination. The end and an opening. Is big; is small. Is small; is big. Mass. Density. Explosive power. Energy.

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